Meet Kanak Jha - America's big table tennis hope

The Germany-based Youth Olympic Games bronze medallist gave Ma Long plenty to think about at the World Championships in Budapest.
By Rory Jiwani

Kanak Jha has taken on a tough mission.

The 18-year-old is trying his hardest to raise the profile of table tennis in the United States.

And it looks like his efforts are bearing fruit.

USA took a six-strong squad, four men and two women, to the ITTF World Championships in Budapest.

Incredibly, the Youth Olympic Games bronze medallist was the oldest man in the American contingent.

Jha went out in the last 64 of the men's singles, but he was far from disgraced in his defeat to Olympic champion Ma Long.

The American took the opening game against the man he recently called "one of my idols in table tennis", but Ma soon went into a 2-1 lead.

Jha then saved two game points before going 12-11 up in an epic fourth.

He did not manage to level the match and Ma hit back to go 3-1 up before running out a 4-1 winner.

Those big points are what separate the very best players from the rest, but Jha showed more than enough to suggest he could soon be challenging for major honours.

From California to Sweden to Germany

Born in Milpitas, California to parents from India, Jha displayed athletic ability as a youngster before channeling his energies into table tennis.

His older sister Prachi had already shown talent in the sport, but Kanak looked a potential worldbeater.

To keep in touch with the elite of the sport, they needed to leave the United States and face stiffer competition.

In 2013, they first visited Halmstad bordtennisklubb in Sweden where 1985 world champion Ulf Carlsson is the head coach.

The Jha siblings moved there permanently a year later with Prachi leading USA to team bronze at the 2014 World Junior Championships.

Kanak kept progressing too, and he won the North American Olympic qualifying tournament in Markham, Ontario in April 2016 to book a place at Rio 2016.

He was the first American athlete born this century to qualify for an Olympic Games and, at 16 years and seven weeks old, the youngest member of Team USA in Brazil.

Jha went out in the preliminary round to Iran's Nima Alamian at Rio 2016, but soon decided it was "time for me to push myself and get out of the comfort zone".

On the recommendation of his German long-term personal coach Stefan Feth, Jha moved to tiny Grenzau near Koblenz.

It is home to one of the best clubs in the German League ('Bundesliga'), TTC Zugbruecke Grenzau, and a state-of-the-art table tennis school.

While practising there, Jha has had to work his way up the ladder.

Ahead of Buenos Aires, he told Olympic Channel, "Sometimes it can get really hard when you're away for a long time and you're practising so much and there's more stress, I'd say.

"But as I've got older, I really just focus on my own expectations because in the end I'm just playing for myself and, of course, my friends and family."

"I don't worry too much about what other people say." - Kanak Jha to Olympic Channel.

He started playing for third division club TTC Ruhrstadt Herne in the 2017-18 season, travelling two hours by train for home matches.

Last season, he was in the second division with 1. FSV Mainz 05, a club better known for its men's football team.

His workrate and the intensity of the German system have paid dividends with Jha establishing himself as one of the sport's top young talents.

Moving into world class

In February 2018, he won the World Junior Circuit Finals in Luxembourg to help him go top of the U18 world rankings.

He also stunned Hong Kong's world number seven Wong Chun Ting in the World Team Cup, setting him up nicely for the Buenos Aires Youth Olympic Games.

He performed admirably at the YOG in Argentina, reaching the semi-finals where he went down 4-0 to eventual winner Wang Chuqin.

In the bronze medal match, Jha faced Lin Yun-ju.

Lin was the only player to win a rubber against China in the Asian Games team competition, beating Wang to help Chinese Taipei to a bronze medal.

He also gave Japanese sensation Tomokazu Harimoto plenty to think about in the last four in Buenos Aires, eventually losing 4-2.

Kanak Jha playing at the 2018 Buenos Aires Youth Olympic Games

Jha and Lin played out one of the matches of the tournament, and it was the American who prevailed in a seven-game thriller.

The match was also notable for an exemplary piece of sportsmanship from Jha.

At three games to one and 6-2 up, he was awarded a point but asked for it to be reversed saying Lin's shot had caught the edge of the table.

Lin reeled off seven of the next eight points as he took the fifth game before forcing a decider which Jha won 11-9.

That won Jha USA's first table tennis medal of any sort at an Olympic Games.

And he's also blazing a trail for other American player with team-mate Nick Tio followed him in moving to Grenzau.

Will 2019 be a breakthrough year?

Jha's improvement over the past year has been rewarded richly as he signed for Grenzau ahead of the new Bundesliga season.

On the international circuit, he came back from 3-1 down against then-world number 39 Gustavo Tsuboi to win 4-3 in the semi-finals of the Pan-American Cup.

The final would prove a step too far as he went down to another Brazilian, world number six Hugo Calderano.

Afterwards, Calderano said, "Kanak is very consistent, he has good control, he is young, playing on the World Tour and at World Championships.

"I have more experience than him but I'm sure that he can move to the next level." - world number six Hugo Calderano on Kanak Jha

Jha is now the top player in the United States and up to 38 in the world.

He was seeded 33rd in Budapest and his defeat to Ma Long came after the pair took part in a joint practice between the USA and China last Friday (19 April).

They played for half an hour together with a nervous Jha saying, "It was a great honour to play Ma Long, obviously. It's really fun, and great experience.

"He is the best player in the world. He is one of my idols in table tennis." - Kanak Jha on Ma Long

Tokyo ambitions

Speaking to Olympic Channel ahead of the Youth Olympic Games, Jha spoke of his hopes for Tokyo 2020.

"Going into Rio, I was a lot less experienced and I just went in there to enjoy (myself) and not worry too much about results."

"But I hope by Tokyo 2020, I'll be a different player and we'll go there hopefully with a different mindset." - Kanak Jha to Olympic Channel.

Now playing in Germany's top-flight, he can only improve as he continues pursuing his dream of reaching the top.

And this quietly understated teenager is grateful for the opportunities his sport has given him.

"Through table tennis, I've met so many people and I've learned so much about different cultures and seen so many things, experienced so much. So it really made me who I am today. I really love the sport so much."

In Buenos Aires, he made American table tennis history.

Could he be making another happy phone call after winning gold in Tokyo?

"That would just be something really amazing for me. Just out of my dreams, really."